Toddlers have a (deserved) reputation for being impatient. Their attention span is short and they struggle to sit still. They’re also prone to sudden outbursts.
In short, toddlers are temperamental and unpredictable. Not exactly the ideal traveling companion, right?
But traveling with 2- and 3-year-olds isn’t impossible. With a little foresight, planning, and smart packing, you too can fly with a toddler.
Do you have to buy a plane ticket for your toddler?
If your little one is under 2 years old, you’re not required to buy a seat for them on flights within the United States.
However, while children under the age of 2 can sit on your lap — and saving the cost of that extra ticket undoubtedly sounds really good — the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recommends that parents buy seats for children of all ages.
This is because being seated is safest.
“The safest place for your child on an airplane is in a government-approved child safety restraint system (CRS) or device, not on your lap,” the FAA writes.
Why? Because “your arms aren’t capable of holding your child securely, especially during unexpected turbulence” but CRS systems are.
The good news is most car seats or high-backed booster seats can be used in this fashion. Here are some ways to check if yours will work:
- Look for the informational tag on the seat. It should read, “This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft.”
- Another tip? Measure the width of your seat. Devices 16 inches and smaller fit will fit most airplane seats.
- To learn more about whether your car seat or booster seat will meet approval, visit the FAA guidance website and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website.
That said, if your car seat can’t fit or doesn’t double as a CRS device, you may want to look into using a CARES harness. This is an FAA-approved restraint.
The straps and buckles of the harness work with the plane seatbelt to secure children between 22 and 44 pounds.
Keep in mind that this only works for aircraft; the CARES harness isn’t intended for use in cars. So, if you’ll still need a car seat at your destination, this might not be the most practical choice.
Of course, you can still opt for a lap seat — if your airline allows. Age policies can vary somewhat from carrier to carrier, so check with the airline you’ll be using.
However, consider the benefits of having that extra seat. When I bought a seat for my 18-month-old, she napped the whole flight. Plus, the additional seat will give you extra space to store things, play, and stretch your legs.
Other considerations for air travel with toddlers
Here are a few other things to keep in mind:
- The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) doesn’t require individuals under the age of 18 to have ID when flying domestically. If you’re traveling internationally, however, your child will need a passport. Your airline may have their own identification requirements, so check with them directly.
- Some airlines allow minors as young as 5 years old to fly unaccompanied. For more information, check with your airline for their policies.
- When flying with toddlers, you should give yourself additional time to check in and clear security. While toddlers aren’t subject to the same screening protocols as adults, items you may be transporting — like bottles, snacks, or stored breast milk — will need to be screened. The same goes for strollers, car seats, and booster seats.
- If your last name differs from your child’s, bring proof of your relationship. Examples include a birth certificate, court order, and adoption decree. And if you’re traveling without the child’s other parent, you may need to bring a consent form.
While it’s important to know the rules and regulations of flying, there’s more to traveling with toddlers than seating arrangements and security. Here are a few of our favorite tips and tricks.
Preboard your flight, when possible
You may think preboarding is unnecessary — after all, why spend more time stuck in a small seat on a small plane?! — but it’ll take you and your toddler time to get situated.
Boarding early will also give you the chance (and space) you need to spread out and organize your toys, tablets, diapers, and snacks. A real win-win.
If you’re traveling with another adult, you may be able to divide and conquer. One person can preboard to prep things on the plane while the other keeps the toddler busy and moving in the airport for a little longer.
Dress in layers
Layers are a must when traveling with a toddler. Why? Because while the weather outside may be warm, the air in airports is (generally) cool.
Plus, the temperature on the plane can vary — from super chilly to boiling hot. Think comfort and convenience.
This is also key for the inevitable messes and spills that can happen when trying to manage snacks and a wiggly toddler in a cramped plane. Being able to quickly take off a yogurt-covered shirt mid-flight without flashing fellow travelers is helpful.
Bring beverages and snacks
Rule number one of traveling with toddlers is to bring snacks. After all, for toddlers, eating is an activity.
Crackers, Goldfish, Teddy Grahams, and Cheerios are a great choice. Bananas can be purchased at most airports, and fruit or vegetable squeeze pouches are nutritious and delicious. For a thorough list of healthy snacks, check out this kid-friendly roundup.
When packing juices or water, consider airline regulations on bringing liquids on board.
You’re able to bring formula or breast milk in amounts larger than the 3.4-ounce limit for liquids. But keep in mind they’ll need to be screened separately at security.
Consider the timing of your flight
Have you ever hung out with a toddler after 5:00 p.m.? I don’t recommend it. They call it the witching hour, and for good reason.
And while there’s a chance your little one will nap on a night flight, there are no guarantees. Plus, late flights are subject to more delays.
Instead, consider flying early — when your wee one is happiest — or timing flights when they’re likely to nap.
Make sure tablets and other devices are charged and shows or games are downloaded
This may seem obvious, but charge your kiddo’s tablet before leaving the house. Trust us. Future you will thank you. It’s also a good idea to prep some entertainment that doesn’t depend on Wi-Fi.
Plus, you should pack spare batteries, cables, and external charging devices. And definitely don’t forget the kid-friendly headphones.
Know — and understand — how to gate-check items
Most airlines allow parents to gate-check bulky items, like strollers and car seats, free of charge. Check with your airline in advance or ask about their gate-check protocols when you arrive at the airport.
When it comes time to pack, checklists can be helpful. After all, knowing what to bring and remembering to bring it are two very different things.
These must-have items are essential — for the airport, plane, and beyond:
- car seat or harness
- baby wipes
- antibacterial wipes for arm rests and tray tables
- a cozy blanket
- change of clothes (for your toddler and for you)
- lovey or favorite toy
- tablet with headphones
- stacking cups, puzzles, or other quiet and portable games
- crayons and coloring sheets
- quick, no-mess snacks — think single-serving snack packs of Goldfish, Teddy Grahams, etc.
- a packed meal for longer flights
- bottles or sippy cups with lids
While traveling with toddlers can be tricky, it’s not impossible. With a little research and planning, you can fly with your toddler — and (maybe) even enjoy it.
Plus, many airlines go the extra mile to make your experience enjoyable. So, take a breath, plan, and pack smartly.
Safe travels to you and your little one!